It didn’t have to be this way. Enda Kenny’s Government could have approached the issue of water charges differently. Acted with some grace or humility when they were discussing it – anything to show that they actually wanted to communicate with the electorate, or cared about what they thought.
Instead, we have the usual patronising patter from Fine Gael and Labour which doesn’t add anything to the debate but instead just raises the hackles of voters throughout the country. For me, there are three examples that spring to mind:-
1. Phil Hogan’s comment that those households that don’t pay their charges will see their supply reduced “to a trickle”. At the press conference in May when this delightful phrase was used, he also accepted that water leakage throughout the country is “unacceptably high at 40%”. Of course, Phil doesn’t much care about water leakage in Ireland anymore, and he certainly won’t have to worry about his own supply being reduced to a trickle. Not since September, when he was confirmed as EU Agriculture Commissioner (the basic annual salary of EU Commissioners is €250,000 – that will pay for a lot of water, I suppose).
I don’t begrudge anyone a healthy salary but there is something very wrong when an Irish Government Minister can speak in such a cavalier way about something so basic as water supply. Has Phil Hogan never heard of stories of older people who, fearing a huge bill, leave their heating off during the winter months, only to suffer or even die of hypothermia? Hasn’t it occurred to him – or, indeed, anyone in this administration, that water charges could present the same fears to already struggling households? Phil Hogan spoke about protecting “vulnerable people”, but sometimes that vulnerability isn’t evident from the outside. The words a Minister uses can count for a lot, and the imagery conveyed by the word “trickle” is, to my mind, intended to frighten.
Enda Kenny’s advice that people should turn off the tap while brushing their teeth didn’t help either. Are we working towards conservation or the environment or the economy? I’m confused – but then again, that seems to be the byword for anything connected with the water charges.
2. Last week in the Dail, Enda Kenny was facing questions about Irish Water. But he wasn’t able to answer any. Oh no, I’m wrong. He did have one answer. Irish Water has “some teething problems”, he admitted. But it will all be fine and dandy just as soon as their “full communication system” is up and running.
This is probably my biggest issue with Irish Water, and it’s the real reason why it’s proving such a headache for the Government. It’s not ready. The necessary preparation that would deem it to ready to answer queries from the public just hasn’t been done. This, despite the fact that we’ve been told that a massive €180 million has already been spent to set up the company.
€180 million. You could probably send a message to Mars for that, but Irish Water couldn’t make it stretch as far as a “communications system”.
Given that sort of spending before the company has even started doing its business, why should we trust the people behind Irish Water to ensure that everything is run in a cost-effective manner? And, as an aside, how much water would €180 million buy? (The Government doesn’t seem to be sure on that one either, judging by the way details on charges have had to be wrangled from them).
Maybe when they were sending out their application pack to every household in the country, Irish Water should also have included a list of their accounts, showing exactly how that €180 million was spent. It was our money, after all, and we’re entitled to know why the odd €20 million here and there couldn’t have been set aside to delay the onset of charges or provide for the hard cases. Just a suggestion.
3. Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of Irish Water is the way in which you’re obliged to pay for it even if you can’t actually consume the water in your area. That’s right. If you’ve been on a long term boil notice then you still have to pay. But it’s okay, because you’ll get an allowance! Er, no. That’s not okay. Why should anyone pay for something that they can’t use? Just for the fun of it? In what universe does that make sense?
Here’s an idea. When the idea of water charges was first mooted, why didn’t anyone think to spend some time and money working on the infrastructure and improving service first? Yes, yes, I know. The money we pay will go into that now but there’s been money floating around for a while now – that figure of €180 million that could probably have done a bit of good if it wasn’t spent elsewhere. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence to tell people that they should trust the Government now even though they now know that the Government has had time to set up a new water company but hasn’t gotten around to fixing their water supply. So nothing’s changed for those households, except for the fact that they now get to pay for the privilege of boiling their water. Hmmm.
Let’s not forget too that we already pay for water in our income tax, whether we’re on boil notices or not. So it’s correct to say that this new charge means we’re paying twice. There hasn’t been any attempt by the government to prove otherwise.
The introduction of water charges will go down in folklore as yet another fiasco by this Government. It bears the hallmark of the current modus operandi of the Fine Gael leadership – an overbearing, bullying attitude that shows little or no respect for the electorate that put them into power. The protestors who stage sit-ins when water meters are being fitted are given no hearing. Demands for reassurance over issues surrounding PPS numbers and Data Protection are reasonable, but are treated with the kind of patronising attitude that befits a frustrated parent dealing with a troublesome child.
Are the cracks starting to show though? The Government has weathered several storms over the last few months but John Deasy’s recent comments that Fine Gael TDs are sick and tired of the way in which the Party is run might well be the start of things to come. As the 1st October deadline for water liability approaches, the dam may yet be about to burst.